A point of departure:
The advent of HIV/ AIDS is the moment that captures the real energies made possible by the outpouring of the carnal pleasures that Stonewall unleashed. Stonewall was queer sexual liberation, alongside heterosexual liberation, but HIV/ AIDS was citizen-making; the distinction is important. HIV/ AIDS worked to produce a very particular and specific queer subjecthood. It was a subject who was sick and diseased in a fashion different from how homosexuality as illness had been previously conceived (even though in some people’s view one illness led to the other) in the “eventful moment” of AIDS. Thus, it is in the realm of sickness and death that a very specific queer subjecthood comes into being. This queer subject also becomes a rights-seeking subject. It is my argument, then, that Stonewall was not the central route through which a modern queer citizenship took hold. Rather it was in the initial impetus/ moment of AIDS in which a “proto-queer citizen” was forced to react and respond to the “stealing” of his carnal pleasures that rights talk and citizen-making became a queer project of self-hood and thus state citizenship.—Rinaldo Walcott, “Queer Returns”
Why am I telling this story? I am . . . a minor character, out of place in this narrative, but the major characters of all these stories from the first ten years of the epidemic have left. The men I wanted to follow into the future are dead. Finding them had made me want to live, and I did. I do. I feel I owe them my survival. The world is not fixed, and the healing is still just past my imagining, though perhaps it is closer than it was. For now, the minor characters are left to introduce themselves, and take the story forward.—Alexander Chee, “After Peter”
A Black feminist presence has evolved most obviously in connection with the second wave of the American women’s movement beginning in the late 1960s. Black, other Third World, and working women have been involved in the feminist movement from its start, but both outside reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the movement itself have obscured our participation.”—Combahee River Collective, “Combahee River Collective Statement”
I have been thinking about belatedness, what it means to be marked as absent or delayed or not yet ready or undeveloped or illiterate or primitive. Or as child or woman or black or blackened. Or African. The Combahee River Collective teaches me how to see belatedness as an absenting: “we were there from the start.” Not coincidence but a difficult coevalness.
I learned the term coeval from reading Johannes Fabian. It means occupying the same time, not framing others as stuck in time or not yet arrived or still to come or forever behind. Practicing coevalness is difficult because the development imaginary works through temporal demarcations: those people are backward and those ones are primitive and those ones need development and those ones are slow. Something called now:here is always contested.
For the work that interests me, I prefer coeval to coincidence.
I thread waywardly.
Queer Returns is the title to Rinaldo’s collection of essays; the running head in the Kindle edition I am using; the title of the Introduction; and the title of the essay I cite above. Something multiplies and echoes, intensifies and becomes unbearable. Perhaps. What does repetition do?
Questions of what it means to be human, of queerness, of citizenship and nation return us to freedom, but most of all those questions when threaded through Black life remind us of freedom’s elusive qualities. In the place of freedom we notice the structures that uphold status quo practices, and we are forced to notice that those status quo practices are often premised on ways of being that offer Black life and Black beings no place to achieve the ideals marked and claimed as freedom. (“Introduction: Queer Returns and Other Moments to Come”)
I am not competent to assess whether the global spread of Pride celebrations roots itself within Stonewall. Certainly, Pride and Stonewall are linked in the U.S. imagination—at this point, more the spirit of Stonewall rather than the substance. But I am much too lazy to research and synthesize the scholarship that’s been produced theorizing how Stonewall and Pride—not necessarily conjoined—have been taken up away from U.S. spaces. I still think Pride needs Stonewall to confer legibility, but I am not sure global Pride tethers itself to Stonewall.
Recent attempts to renarrate Stonewall focus on its working class, poor, drag queen, trans*, and black participants, a cast from and of the wretched of the earth. A cast recognizable to those women who framed themselves as U.S. Third World Feminists. Sandra Soto writes, “that jarring oxymoron scrambles inside and outside by unstitching the cartographic seams that violently uphold the fantasy of U.S. exceptionalism.” Gloria Anzaldúa writes, “We have come to realize that we are not alone in our struggles nor separate nor autonomous but that we—white black straight queer female male—are connected and interdependent. We are each accountable for what is happening down the street, south of the border or across the sea.” Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider starts in Russia and ends in Grenada. We need black and women of color theorists—Moraga, Anzaldúa, Lorde, the Combahee River Collective—to see the global work of gender and sexuality activism, to figure the Stonewall participants as the wretched of the earth. We need the idea of U.S. Third World Feminists to direct our gaze.
I’m still trying to think with Rinaldo.
“Queer Returns: Human Rights, the Anglo-Caribbean, and Diaspora Politics,” takes up Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, edited by Thomas Glave. It takes up belonging and attachment and ethics: what it means to write to and about the Caribbean as a resident of North America.
The archipelago of the Caribbean is not merely a geographic space, but the Caribbean as an entity also extends beyond its geography as a global reality—it is an extension in time and space, into other places and spaces.
I suspect that Bob Marley is how many of us outside the Caribbean first encountered the Caribbean. Marley as singing freedom dreams. Later, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Maryse Condé, Louise Bennett, Olive Senior, Claude McKay: writers and thinkers about freedom and colonialism and blackness and the quotidian. I was—I remain—unable to think about and toward freedom from Nairobi, and the Caribbean offered me a different kind of ground from which to think with and into.
Here is the provocation: What if Stonewall were framed as part of the anti-colonial movements of the mid-twentieth century? What if it were placed alongside the many wars for freedom across the globe?
I intend this provocation at least two ways. First, I’m interested in making Pride legible and meaningful from Nairobi and within histories of Kenyan struggle. Second, I’m interested in renarrating Stonewall and gay liberation from the ambitions of anti-colonial action and ambition. Those ambitions envision anti-colonial struggle and freedom as generating new people, new socialities, new cultures. In this reading, Stonewall participates in generating new people, new socialities, new cultures.
I am more convinced about claims to newness when they are embedded in anti-colonial struggles for freedom. I take Sylvia Wynter’s long view of colonialism as starting in 1492.
What kind of freedom struggle was the Stonewall rebellion?
From Nairobi, as I watch the state shrink public space and diminish opportunities for minoritized groups to occupy public space, I think about the public-making actions of Pride celebrations. How publics are made and how those publics occupy and generate space.
Stonewall falls in a strange place within histories of anti-colonial actions. By the mid-1960s, the energies that had animated anti-colonial struggles had soured in much of the post-independence world. Disillusionment set in as colonial structures continued to administer ostensibly independent nations. Stonewall, too, seemed to suffer this fate: the minoritized, U.S. Third World activists who had populated it were lost to mainstream history and the radical potential of Stonewall—a potential to ally with the wretched of the earth outside the U.S., for instance—was swallowed by something less interesting. This is part of the story told in Tongues Untied, so I will not repeat it here.
Wise friends have taught me that historical affiliations are always constructed retroactively.
If, following Rinaldo’s mapping, Stonewall did not create queer citizens, and if, in my provocation, Stonewall lives alongside anti-colonial movements, what might those figures and affiliations produced by Stonewall—those figures that embody the wretched of the earth—have to tell us about the figures and affiliation produced by anti-colonial movements? If not as “citizens,” how are we to understand those who participated in Stonewall? And what might that understanding tell us about those who participated in anti-colonial actions and their relationships to newly independent states?
Beyond the claim that nationalisms—are all anti-colonial struggles nationalisms?—are patriarchal and heteronormative, how else might sex, gender, embodiment, sexuality, and pleasure be figured in relation to freedom struggles?
I have strayed far from Rinaldo’s work, even as I would insist that his work provides the opening for these speculations. For which I am grateful.